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Archive for April 4th, 2013

Syria’s brain drain: The exodus of educated and skilled Syrians is increasingly depleting the country’s workforce

Posted by African Press International on April 4, 2013

DUBAI,  – The exodus of educated and skilled Syrians is increasingly depleting the country’s workforce and the quality of its health services, already strained by two years of conflict. 

“The phenomenon is ongoing and growing,” said regional humanitarian coordinator Radhouane Nouicer.The flight of professionals has affected the bureaucracy, educational institutions and factories – but nowhere is the impact felt more than in the medical sector.

Late last year, the World Health Organization said all of the country’s nine psychiatrists and more than half the doctors in Homs had left the country. Clinics run by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are short of surgeons and other medical experts.

This month, as the Syrian conflict entered its third year, the number of refugees surpassed one million. Observers worry the “brain drain” will affect Syria’s long-term future.

“These skills are much needed for rebuilding Syria tomorrow,” Nouicer told IRIN.

While Syria has been affected by the departure of educated people for decades due to the lack of economic opportunities and political freedom, the conflict has increased the shortages of doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers to unprecedented levels.

“One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war,” the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria wrote in a report this month. “Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by parties to the conflict as military objectives.”

Many professionals have had difficulty getting visas to Europe and the Gulf states, and have instead ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, where aid agencies are trying to make use of their skills through community mobilization and cash-for-work programmes in the camps’ schools and health centres. Others have decided to stay to try to address the needs in their country.

IRIN spoke to highly skilled professionals both inside and outside Syria about the difficult choice they faced and the impacts of their decisions – both on themselves and their country.

Bayan*, civil engineer from Homs:

“I will never leave Syria because I have a vision for my country. We are working on building the future of Syria, so I have a responsibility to stay. I have asked my wife to leave because it’s not safe here, but she doesn’t want to go anywhere else either. She’s a teacher; I’m a civil engineer. I haven’t been to my office for almost two years. Instead, I’ve founded a group called the Free Syrian Engineers so that we can gather the competence of experts who are still inside Syria. Our group includes about 70 engineers in Homs, from all branches, electrical, civil, mechanical and computer engineers.

“We’re organizing in order to work on whatever task comes up, from cleaning the streets to repairing electrical lines. We’re also working on studies on rebuilding Syria after the conflict. I know it sounds theoretical now, but it will be very important to be prepared when the time comes. Even though none of us is working in their normal jobs right now, there’s still a lot to do on the ground, in medical, relief or media work, for example. There’s a need for everything. Life is difficult, but I am happy to be here. There was a lot of work for me in Homs before the war, and there will be even more afterwards.”

Mohamed Alkhateb, 27, teacher from Palmyra:

“I used to teach English at a local school to children between six and 12. I was arrested in February 2012 and imprisoned for six months because I was an activist. In prison, they hit me so badly they broke my ribs. I left Syria right after they released me because I knew that if I stayed, they’d come for me again. The school has now been closed because of the shelling. Before the conflict, there were between 20 and 25 teachers in that school. About six of them joined the protest movement, and they’ve all left the country by now. It’s hard for the children. No classes, no learning. I feel sorry for them.

“I’ve rented an apartment in Cairo that I am sharing with friends who are also refugees from Syria. I have managed to get an administrative job at a pilot training school, but it’s hard to get by. My salary is only US$200 a month, but I need $300-400 to survive. So my family has to send me some extra money. I really miss Syria, my city and my friends, but I cannot return. Life in Egypt is tough. I wanted could go to Europe, but no country would give us a visa. For the time being, I’m stuck.”

Anwar*, 44, professional football player from Latakia:

“I left Syria in 2012 simply because I couldn’t find a job. It had nothing to do with political reasons. I used to be a football player. Now I am working as a football coach in Dubai. It’s a good position, and people really respect me. I have never had a good job in Syria. That’s why I’ve spent a large part of my life abroad. In 2003, I was asked to return to Syria and work on a study on the state of football in the country, but that didn’t work out. Nobody listened to what I had to say.

“I have tried to live in Syria, but I did not see any opportunities. There was no room for new ideas. There are many Syrians working in high positions abroad who were facing the same problems. It’s almost like they don’t want qualified people like us. However, I feel bad every day for not being there. I am very popular back home because of my football career, and people need something to be proud of. If I’d get any job, I’d go back tomorrow.”

Abu Adnan*, 30, dentist from Deir-ez-Zor:

“I have thought a lot about moving to a different country. Everybody wants a peaceful life. I’m longing for simple things, taking a stroll or having coffee in the garden. I am a dentist, but I haven’t been able to work in my profession for over a year. My clinic was completely destroyed by the shelling. I love my work, and I miss it a lot. I specialized in bridges and partial dentures. My wife is also a dentist; she has taken refuge in a town outside of Deir-ez-Zor. Our one-year-old daughter is with her.

“There used to be thousands of doctors in Deir-ez-Zor. Now, there are only about 10 of them left. I help out in a field clinic now, suturing wounds or giving injections. We often have to amputate limbs because we don’t have the means necessary to treat the injuries. I don’t think my future will be good. Everything is destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild Syria. My wife keeps begging me to take the family outside of Syria. She is very scared; she is crying all the time. Of course, I don’t want my daughter to grow up like this. But it’s not easy to leave the city you’ve grown up in.”

Talal Hoshan, 49, judge from Hama Governorate:

“I left Syria because I wasn’t able to stand the regime’s war crimes any longer. I fled with my family right after the massacre in Qubair, a town near Hama, in June 2012. I saw the corpses of four children and two women, and it was clear they had been executed. As the local director of public prosecution, I had to examine the dead. While I was doing that, I cursed the regime under my breath because I had information that they were responsible. One soldier heard me and told me to keep quiet. The next day, I contacted the [rebel] Free Syrian Army. They helped us escape across the border to Turkey.

“We used to have a big, beautiful apartment. The one we’re renting in southern Turkey is much smaller. I have no job and no income. We’ve sold our car, and our friends are helping us out. We’re better off than most refugees, but I worry about my children. I have four girls and two boys, both of whom are very sick. They are suffering from a heart disease, and they haven’t seen a doctor for a long time. I would like to take my family to Sweden because they have a very advanced treatment for that disease there. I have called the Swedish consulate, but they refused to give us visas. I don’t care about myself, but my family really needs help. My children’s condition is getting worse every day.”

Dlshad Othman, 26, computer technician from Qamishli:

“I left Syria in December 2011. As a Kurd, I’ve always been critical of the regime. I used to work for an internet provider in Damascus, but they only gave me menial tasks, and my salary was bad. When the uprising started, I lost my job because of my political views. Then I joined an NGO in Damascus documenting violence against journalists. I was developing ways for activists to be safe online.

“In October 2011, I gave an on-camera interview to a British journalist. He was arrested with the footage on his laptop. I was warned by a friend, and I escaped across the border to Lebanon because I knew the security forces were looking for me. It was easy for me to find a job in the US and get a visa. I was lucky because there are a lot of opportunities for people with computer skills.

“I don’t miss Syria at all because there was no respect, no job security, no professionalism in the work world. Here in Washington, it’s different. As a professional, I am happy here. I have a great job, a good income, insurance. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. Here, I can actually do something: I am working for an NGO advocating internet freedom, not only in Syria, but everywhere in the world. I can also help out my family financially.

“What do I imagine my future to be like? I don’t see my future right now. That part of my life is still missing. I hope I will find the answer to that question someday.”

*not a real name

gmk/af/ha/rz   source


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Peace belies rocky road ahead – What are the remaining security threats?

Posted by African Press International on April 4, 2013

MOGADISHU, – Since the August 2011 withdrawal of Al-Shabab insurgents from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, security has improved, allowing for the gra dual resumption of government functions. But sporadic suicide attacks, conflict-related population displacement and socio-economic problems persist, exemplifying some of the daunting challenges still ahead. 

On 18 March, for example, a car bomb in Mogadishu left several people dead.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud responded in a statement: “We can only presume at this stage that this cowardly attack is the work of Al-Shabab. They have been severely weakened and now resort to terrorism and murder of innocent Somali citizens… Al-Shabab/Al-Qaeda forces have no place in this world, and we will not allow them to have [a] place in Somalia.”

Al-Shabab has since claimed responsibility for the attack.

Below, IRIN provides an overview of Somalia’s recent progress and the many challenges that remain.

What does relative stability look like in Somalia?

Recent gains by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces against the Al-Shabab insurgents have given the government some breathing space. Members of the Somali diaspora are now returning due to the increased stability.

“We are no longer scared of the heavy shelling exchanged by Al-Shabab and African Union forces,” Abdullahi, a businessman in the Bakara Market, told IRIN. The market was previously an Al-Shabab stronghold.

“More children are going to school, businesses are opening, and there been a construction boom,” added another Mogadishu resident. “There has been a really big change.”

According to the mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Ahmed Nur Tarsan, there has been a significant improvement in the security situation there.

“When Al-Shabab was ruling parts of Mogadishu, all government MPs [members of parliament] and politicians could not rent houses but were all caged in the presidential palace. Now, they live in various neighbourhoods of Mogadishu,” he said.

The lighting up of two arterial roads in Mogadishu has allowed businesses there to remain open after dark; children can also be seen playing in the streets. “I am playing football with my friends until late at night,” Mohamed Hassan, 12, told IRIN in the Mogadishu district of Howlwadag.

There are plans to gradually light up other major roads in Mogadishu in a bid to boost business.

What are the remaining security threats?

But “insecurity remained a key challenge throughout the country in February,” according to an update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), issued on 6 March.

“An explosion occurred in Mogadishu’s Abdiaziz District. The vehicle-borne improvized explosive device [VBIED] attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. One person was confirmed dead and three others were injured.

“In Kismayo, 11 people were killed in clashes between rival pro-government and clan-based militias. The clashes may be related to the long political tension in the Juba region over the formation of a regional state,” the update said, adding that a suicide attack on 11 February in Gaalkayo had killed one person and wounded 27 others.

Dozens of households also fled areas in the Bay and Bakool regions to the town of Luuq, and others fled to Dollo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia, fearing armed clashes in Diinsoor and the onset of the lean season, it said.

Meanwhile, an Al-Shabab blockade in Bakool has led to a rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs.

“The cost of 50kg of rice was 400,000 Somali shillings (US$24) a year ago, and it is 800,000 Somali shillings ($48) today,” Osman Ali, a father of eight, told IRIN by telephone. “I have spent all I had. Now, I am almost about to sell my houses to get food for my children.”

“When Al-Shabab was ruling parts of Mogadishu, all government MPs and politicians could not rent houses but were all caged in the presidential palace. Now, they live in various neighbourhoods of Mogadishu”

Mohamed Moalin, the commissioner of Bakool’s regional capital of Hudur, said that Al-Shabab is preventing food from reaching the town.

“Al-Shabab controls the main roads that lead to Hudur, and they would not allow vehicles carrying food to enter the [areas] we control, and this has resulted [in] hardships for the people.” Residents there now rely on food brought in by donkey carts.

In a 21 March press release, following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Hudur, AMISOM sought to reassure residents, stating it “is working closely with the Federal Government of Somalia in their efforts to re-establish a security presence in the area.”

AMISOM Force Commander General Gutti said, “We have in place contingent measures to ensure that areas in Bay and Bakool remain stable and secure in the event of further Ethiopian troop withdrawals.”

The Somali government is also grappling with acts of criminality by its armed forces.

Several hours after the execution of three soldiers for killing civilians, the chairman of Somalia’s Supreme Military Court, Hassan Mohamed Hussein Mungab, told IRIN: “We will not tolerate killers and rapists within the armed forces. We will kill them because they denied the very people they were supposed to protect the right to life.”

Armed, uniformed men have also been accused of robbery. “I have had my mobile phone forcibly taken by two uniformed men,” Abdikafi Mohamed, a resident of Mogadishu, said.

International focus on the security sector was reflected in the March partial lifting of a UN arms embargo on Somalia, which will allow the government to continue to train and equip its armed forces.

How have development efforts fared?

The Somalia government also struggles to ensure access to health and education.

The lack of experienced health professionals and supplies is a challenge, said Mohamud Moallim Yahye, the deputy minister for development and social services.

“Most of our doctors are junior and they do not have access to the right equipment to carry out their work. With the help of our Turkish brothers [through Turkish NGOs], we want to rebuild the country’s health institutions and gradually get free public hospitals,” Yahye told IRIN, adding that the ministry hopes to engage more with development partners.

“Donors and aid organizations used to engage with local NGO and private individuals while providing services, but now things are changing – health interventions across the country will be conducted through the Ministry of Social Services [and] Development.”

An estimated four million Somali children are also missing out on schooling, according to the social services ministry. The ministry hopes to send at least one million children to school in 2013, even as former government schools are currently housing hundreds of internally displaced persons.

A standard syllabus must also be developed. “There are various syllabuses in use in the country which impart different cultures and values among Somalis, so developing a standard curriculum is a challenge,” said Yahye.

Has peace affected the economy?

Financial issues remain paramount. The Somali shilling has been strengthening against the US dollar over the last couple of months, with adverse effects.

At present, $100 is being exchanged for 1.7 million Somali shillings, compared to 2.2 million in the recent past.

“My brother in Britain sends me $100, but it buys less shillings than before, which means I can buy less goods or services. It’s good to have our money strengthened, but it does not have increased purchasing power,” said Liban Galad, a student in Mogadishu.

“We used to eat three times a day, but we have reduced [this to] two,” Fatima Rashid, a mother of five, told IRIN.

Somalia does not have a functioning central bank to regulate the supply and demand of currencies.

“For the last two decades, no legal sufficient money has been printed, so there [are] less shillings in Somalia, and the rise in demand for the shilling has devalued the dollar,” Mohamed Sheikh Ahmed, an economics lecturer at the SIMAD University, told IRIN.

Investors and returnees have also flooded the market with dollars. “Somali investors are coming home with dollars. All salaries are paid in dollars. Tax is paid in dollars. And agencies, especially [the] Turkish, are paying in dollars – huge amount[s] of dollars,” he added.

Some business people could also be hoarding Somali shillings leading to a higher demand.

To help to stabilize the fluctuating exchange rate, Ahmed suggests printing more 1,000 shilling notes, but says longer-term measures are needed. “The most practical [solution] in the long term is the printing of new money with [a] strong central bank, which can control the demand and the supply [of currency],” he said, adding that the government should also start paying salaries and collecting taxes in Somali shillings.

amd/aw/rz source


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TB testing rolling out slowly

Posted by African Press International on April 4, 2013

CAPE TOWN,  – South Africa will expand its rollout of GeneXpert tuberculosis (TB) testing machines, which can diagnose TB and drug-resistant TB within 90 minutes, but concerns remain about the capacity to back up this commitment with supplies and treatment. 

The country is the largest buyer of GeneXpert technology in the world, but the machines have not yet become point-of-care tests and are often deployed at district rather than clinic level. Nonetheless, they have shaved weeks off waiting times for patients because samples no longer have to be transported to and from national referral hospitals kilometres away for diagnosis.

At the opening of the TB Vaccines Third Global Forum in Cape Town on 25 March, Precious Matsoso, director general of the South African Department of Health, announced that an additional 135 machines will be imported by the end of 2013. The GeneXpert was released in 2010 and South Africa already has 150.

Matsoso’s announcement was made a day after the health department handed over six machines to the Department of Correctional Services at Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison. A former inmate at Pollsmoor, Dudley Lee, took the correctional services department to court after he contracted TB during incarceration. Although Lee eventually died of TB, the courts found in his favour.

During the handover, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe also announced that TB screening for inmates would carried out every six months, and reiterated a commitment that at-risk miners would be annually screened for TB. Of the 735 Pollsmoor inmates screened for TB during Motlanthe’s visit, 12 percent had TB, according to Matsoso.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists South Africa in the top 22 countries with a high TB burden. An estimated 500,000 cases of active TB are diagnosed annually and the disease remains the leading cause of natural death according to the national statistical service, StatSa.

South Africa could become WHO observatory

Matsoso also announced that the health department, the National Department of Science and Technology, and the US-based non-profit TB vaccine developer, Aeras, would continue to fund the recently created South Africa Consortium on TB Vaccines.

“We are at the centre of the TB epidemic, so we have to have our own response… in terms of vaccines being developed. Hopefully, South Africa will become a global player,” Willem Hanekom, director of the South Africa TB Vaccine Initiative, told IRIN.

Matsoso, who has worked with WHO on issues of intellectual property, said that through the consortium South Africa would be well-placed to become one of the research observatories envisioned in WHO resolutions aimed at promoting research and development. She noted that these initiatives would have to be accompanied by changes to regulations, for instance to facilitate fast-track review to allow the country earlier access potential new vaccines.

Stand and deliver

South African AIDS lobby the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have questioned the government’s ability to deliver on these promises as stockouts and slow decentralization persist.

In a joint letter delivered to South African Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on 22 March, the organizations stressed that the success of the GeneXpert rollout hinged on a steady supply of testing cartridges for the machines, the decentralization of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) care and treatment, and improved supply-chain management to avoid recurring drug stockouts.

The organizations also questioned the continued delay in implementing the health department’s 2011 policy decision to move DR-TB care out of designated TB hospitals with a shortage of beds to primary healthcare clinics closer to patients’ homes.

“Provincial operational plans for decentralization of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) care have not been drafted, nor have readiness assessments been conducted of all proposed decentralized MDR-TB (sites),” the letter pointed out.

The organizations urged the health department to implement the 2011 policy, which would allow all of South Africa’s nine provinces to begin initiating and managing stable adult and paediatric MDR-TB at local clinics before the end of 2013.

llg/kn/he  source


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